Monday, December 17, 2007

Ravi Mathai the living legend

Ravi Mathai the living legend

IIM Ahmedabad turned 46 earlier this week. This is as good an occasion as any to recall the services of its legendary founder-director Ravi Mathai.

Ravi Mathai, son of John Mathai, finance minister in Nehru’s Cabinet, was appointed the first full-time director of IIMA in 1965. (Vikram Sarabhai had been honorary director until then). The choice of Mathai was in itself remarkable. He was not an “insider” — the Institute had been set up earlier.

He did not have an advanced academic degree — he was a corporate executive who had only recently joined IIM Calcutta as professor. In a country that is still gerontocratic, he was obscenely young — he was 38.

It is a tribute to Sarabhai’s own leadership qualities that he made absolutely the right choice. By 1972, when he stepped down as director, Mathai had not only put IIMA on the national map, he had laid secure foundations for its continued success.

If IIMA has since gone from strength to strength, it is very substantially because of the strategic decisions taken in Mathai’s time as well as the culture, systems and processes he put in place.

In my nine-year association with IIMA, I have often been struck by the abiding impress of its founder-director. I remember attending the then director’s welcome address to the incoming post-graduate batch soon after I had joined. In the course of a 20 minute address, the director invoked Mathai’s name four times.

In the initial years, I noted with astonishment how almost any significant process would be traced back to Mathai. (“Oh, that happened in Ravi Mathai’s time”). Heads of institutions fade into oblivion within weeks of demitting office. Mathai is remembered at IIMA all the time.

What explains Mathai’s success and his profound impact on IIMA? First, a clear sense of purpose. IIMA’s concern, as Mathai put it, was “with the application of knowledge”. This meant that the Institute would be involved in teaching, research and consulting. The impact “would be greatest if it were the combined result of all activities”, so faculty must engage in all three activities.

Mathai saw clearly that to focus merely on business would limit IIMA. It would also expose it to charges of being elitist in its orientation. IIMA’s ambit needed to be wider: it would be an institute of management, not just a business school. It would develop expertise in important sectors, including agriculture.

Secondly, Mathai’s conviction that academic activities can flourish only when faculty are given the fullest freedom. In an academic institution, excellence cannot be ordered. It springs forth when people are given the space to grow and to express themselves freely.

Thirdly, the idea of a faculty-governed institute where decision-making rests primarily with the faculty and not with the director or the board. An example is the admissions committee that is independent of the director. The mechanism has been crucial in insulating admissions from unhealthy influence.

Fourthly, what is, perhaps, Mathai’s greatest bequest to IIMA: the principle of a single term for the director. After six years as director, Mathai stunned the community by announcing his decision to step down and stay on as professor. He gave two reasons for doing so.

One, leaders of academic institutions tended to use their positions for career advancement; this was not good for the institutions. Two, it was important to establish the principle that the director’s position is not hierarchical; he is only first among equals. You are professor, you become director and then you become professor again.

This one contribution of Mathai’s cannot be overstated. In the present scheme of things, the director has sweeping powers. The board of governors does not quite have the monitoring authority of a corporate board. Faculty governance can work only to the extent the director is willing to let it work.

Limiting the director to one term is vital to good governance. It is the knowledge that a director’s actions can be looked into once he has reverted to a faculty role, the certainty that he will be cut dead in the corridors by colleagues whom he has mistreated that acts as a check, however inadequate, on the incumbent.

There is more to Mathai’s enduring impact than his grasp of the principles of good governance in academic institutions. He managed the relationship with government with great skill. He was a superb man-manager with the gift of drawing out the best in people. Above all, he had moral authority: he brought to his office high integrity, a spirit of sacrifice and self-effacement.

India has been fortunate in having had great institution builders. At the national level, we had people of the make of Nehru, Patel and Ambedkar. At the organisational level, we have had the likes of Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai and RK Talwar (of SBI). In that constellation of institution builders, Ravi Mathai shines brightly.

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